Friday, July 24, 2009
A wise man, indeed
Learning that Dr. Joel D. Weisman passed away on Saturday at the age of 66 jolted me back to an era of the AIDS epidemic that exists only in the memories of those who lived through it.
Dr. Weisman was one of the first doctors to identify the disease that later became known as AIDS, and the co-author of a landmark report in 1981 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Dr. Weisman was also one of the doctors whose patients I visited while volunteering for AIDS Project Los Angeles in the mid- to late 1980s.
Sherman Oaks Community Hospital was one of the many sites where APLA volunteers visited with AIDS patients. In those days, many hospitals in Los Angeles had dedicated AIDS units that housed patients suffering from opportunistic infections caused by AIDS. Hospital stays could last weeks, and many patients died in their hospital beds or were transfered to AIDS hospices. Severely limited treatment options meant that the average length of time from diagnosis to death was just a few years.
My role was to spend time in the AIDS unit at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital and sit with patients who accepted visitors, and support the nursing staff. It wasn't easy work.
Whenever Dr. Weisman or another doctor entered a room while I was visiting a patient, that was my cue to say goodbye and move on.
I don't think Dr. Weisman knew my name, but he knew why I was in the ward and he was always gracious and kind to me.
I eventually stopped being very useful as a hospital visitor. Patients who were alert, engaging and funny were easier to visit than the patients who were angry, depressed and silent. When I realized that I was passing by the rooms that housed difficult patients and spending time with patients who were in good spirits, I dropped out of the volunteer program.
On Sunday, I ran into a friend named Rick at an Outfest screening. Rick is the man who was my mentor in the hospital visitation program, and he lasted much longer in the gig than I did. I think he continued volunteering all the way up till the day that Sherman Oaks Hospital closed the AIDS unit because fewer AIDS patients were being hospitalized.
Rick always had the inside scoop on all of the doctors treating patients in our unit —Dr. Rothman, Dr. Scarsella, Dr. Rogolsky and a few others— and it was always fun to chat with him when we were away from the unit. To us, these men were heroes, pioneers and mavericks.
We also knew these doctors as gentle, human men who were as emotionally affected by the ravages of AIDS as anyone.
When I saw Rick on Sunday, neither of us knew that Dr. Weisman passed away the day before. But I bet that the news of his death also jolted Rick back to those plague years of the '80s and '90s.
The Outfest film that Rick and I watched on Sunday was a gay romantic comedy with lots of sex and not one mention of AIDS. Back in the '80s and '90s AIDS was embedded in the fabric of the gay community. It's a different era now.
It was a privilege to be one of the many people to work in Dr. Weisman's presence, even in my small capacity. It was also unforgettable. I hope that the times we lived will never be forgotten.
Dr. Joel Weisman dies at 66, among the first doctors to detect AIDS